From the Big House to Your House: Lifers in Women's Prison Compile Cookbook of Improvised Recipes

Some women at a Texas prison have compiled their culinary wisdom into a cookbook for those on the outside. The volume, titled From the Big House to Your House, is a collection of 200 recipes written by six women of the Mountain View Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Gatesville, Texas. All except one of the authors -- Celeste Johnson, Ceyma Bina, Barbara Holder, Tina Cornelius, Trenda Kemmerer and Louanne Larson -- are serving prison sentences of at least 50 years for murder convictions.

The women pooled their resources to seek alternatives to prison chow, which eventually led to the cookbook. The recipes are easy-to-prepare meals, snacks, and desserts. They have to be easy because in prison there are no toaster ovens or microwaves; all they had to cook with was a hot pot and an empty potato chip bag -- which works well for trapping heat.

A lot of Mexican-style recipes can found in the table of contents. Some of the recipes are chicken and lemon pepper rice, spicy gumbo, and apple strudel.

Even though preparing these dishes requires ingenuity in prison, the women had novice-level cooks in mind when they wrote the book, which was also meant for prisoners elsewhere who were seeking alternatives to prison food.

When the first draft was finished and sent for revision, it was intercepted in the mail room and the prison warden (who is also a woman) demanded changes. Among them was the removal of some ingredients because they are specific to that prison only. All of the ingredients in the book are purchased through the prison commissary.

"I was doing everything to accommodate the warden because she could make life miserable for them if she wanted to," says Hans Sherrer, publisher of Justice Denied, the magazine for the Justice Institute, which also published the cookbook.

Because there is a law that prohibits prisoners from running a business while incarcerated, all profits made from the book will go to the Justice Institute, the Seattle-based nonprofit that helps prisoners fight wrongful convictions. The institute will also fight for two of the authors -- Celeste Johnson and Trenda Kemmerer -- who maintain their innocence.

The warden intercepted the book a total of three times and demanded changes, but problems were solved once her superiors at the Texas Department of Corrections got involved, Sherrer says. Overall, it took about a year to get the book published. 

"It was just a bunch of nitpicky things that didn't amount to anything more than a hill of beans," Sherrer says. "But it's a cookbook. I mean, the whole thing is pretty ridiculous."

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David Minsky is a U.S. Navy veteran and Tulane graduate who has experience reporting on stories from California, South Florida, and the Deep South. He has also won some journalism awards. Email or tweet David with story tips and ideas.
Contact: David Minsky